Sep 252017

“The more that you take care with your writing, the more you might explore uncertainties in your thinking,” suggests Stanford University Environmental Earth System Science Professor Julie Kennedy in this excellent Writing Matters video. Kennedy helpfully stresses the primacy of “owning” your topic before putting pen to paper. There’s no short cut.

Nov 092016

Professor Mayhew’s recent take on the topic:

terminal1Teaching is transactional. The instructor is not feeding information to the students, teaching them that information, but interacting with them. A third element is the text in the class. The text is not inert, but active as well. For example, yesterday we were reading Olvido García Valdés, one of the best Spanish poets of the day.I could see the students rise to the intellectual level of the poetry itself, and it was wonderful as their comments got more and more brilliant. 

One student brought up the idea that this poetry was “elitist,” because it required a certain level of education to read and understand. Well, we are an elite, even to be in a graduate classroom reading anything at all, even non-elite poetry. For me elitism would be despising those who are not in the classroom with us, feeling that we are special because we get to spend our time like this.  To call ourselves “elitist” for this is a wretched sentiment.

Elitism is a theme in his online life. His many posts on this subject are illuminating.

Oct 162016

In the New York Times obituary section recently I came upon one for Jacob Neusner, a scholar (and polemicist) who published more than 900 books in his lifetime. I calculated – on the back of a napkin, as it were – that Professor Neusner wrote approximately 10,000 publishable words every gosh-darn day for 50 years – over and above all the other words he wrote, including professional and personal correspondence, of which there must have been a ton. And he did this while mastering numerous complex disciplines (and languages) and raising a family. 

The Times obit quotes an admiring detractor:

[Neusner] is perhaps most widely known for his irascible, sometimes quite nasty and often pugnacious personality, his famous excoriating reviews, sometimes book-length critiques, and his fallings-out with almost every institution he worked in, almost every teacher who taught him, many of his students — as well as the errors that scar his many translations and publications.

A friend notes:

It seems that it would be better to be known for writing only 450 books, without the nasty and pugnacious part.

I doubt that Professor Neusner would have taken that deal, for many reasons. Here is the main one, I think: Along with study Neusner seemed to learn about topics via contention with others, which, happily for him, also fertilized his prose. (Churchill is said to have learned about a topic primarily by writing about it.)

Decades ago I had the pleasure of working with the formidable philosopher Sidney Hook. Up until his death at 86 he was still picking fights with both luminaries and unknowns. I have thought a lot about why he took aim at the latter, when there was little clear imperative, and even less interest among his readers, for Hook to do so. I believe he wanted to stay sharp rhetorically, and, as important, he wanted to make sure he had not missed anything.

Nov 292015

From professor Jonathan Mayhew:

One of Orwell’s sillier pieces of writing advice is “Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.” Orwell advises “scrapping of every word or idiom which has outworn its usefulness.” But then wouldn’t he have to also scrap the metaphorical use of the verb “scrap” and the cliché phrase “has outworn its usefulness”? My point is not that Orwell is a hypocrite, that he himself breaks his own rules: that would be all too easy. Rather, the advice is simply incoherent and impossible to follow. Words tend to fall into statistical probable clusters, and part of being a language-user is to fall into some of those patterns along with everyone else. We scream in agony, or are “abundantly clear.”

We don’t just have a vocabulary of words, but a vocabulary of idiomatic expressions. As a teacher of a foreign language, I am constantly correcting unidiomatic Spanish, things that would make no sense at all to a native speaker of Spanish. What Orwell calls dead metaphors are just idiomatic phrases. We call them clichés because of old printer’s jargon. You could keep the moveable type for a particular phrase together in one place so you didn’t have to reset it every time. Another word for this was a stereotype. Knowing clichés or idiomatic expressions and using them correctly is part of being competent in a language.

I’m not saying that you should reach for the cliché as your first resort, or that you should never try to reduce your unthinking usage of them. I try not to use the phrase “makes a valuable contribution to the field” in a book review, for example, because that is THE cliché phrase in that genre. But generally speaking, clichés are simply the way things happen to be said in a particular language.

In linguistics this is known as “chunking.”

Oct 102015


My friend Jonathan Mayhew has been on a tear of late, publishing a series of manifestos on poetry in his wonderful blog, Stupid Motivational Tricks. Some snippets (but read the whole thing):

Manifesto (1)

Nobody knows what poetry is for. I think it is for something of great importance; that it is not trivial. …      It follows that the reading of poetry is a spiritual exercise. For me, what poetry is about is the experience of awe. I only really care about poetry, or music, or art, that offers this sense of wonder about being alive in the first place. If you’ve never felt this reading a poem then you need to read someone else’s blog and leave me alone. …     There are poets who write poems, and have a decent, acceptable, style, but don’t seem connected at all to anything related to the awesomeness of poetry. There are critics who make nice arguments about which poetry belongs in which category. I have done that myself. A lot of this has nothing to do with poetry and can be safely ignored.

Another Manifesto (2)

There is a puzzling dichotomy in twentieth century poetics. Let us call it the division between aesthetics and the anti-aesthetic. It manifests itself in the debate between art itself (on the one hand) and socio-political uses of art. …     Both sides of the debate are actually in complete agreement with each other, deploying the exact same dichotomy without questioning it. …     So the puzzle is that this dichotomy would have not been comprehensible 100 years earlier. If you asked Shelley about this, he would not have understood what you meant. Or Milton or Spenser. The terms were not yet in opposition; the debate was not framed in that way in the least.

Manifesto 3

Reading poetry is a ruminative activity. Instead of being absorbed for hours in the reading of a continuous narrative, you read very short texts over and over again and then think about them for a long time. To read (really read) vast quantities of poetry is guaranteed to make you somewhat insane, since it invites solitary rumination. …     I am now the only poetry specialist in my department, so the effects of isolation are even greater.

Composition (Manifesto 4)

If you are a scholar of poetry, then you know how to pay close attention to every word and every space. You have, then, a certain prose responsibility to poetry. You must write well and accurately. You don’t have to be a poet, but pretty close. Everything I regret in my own work is the result of failure to live up to this ideal.

Manifesto 5 (viva voce)

Research is attested to in writing. Yet teaching is quintessentially oral. The living presence of the voice is what matters. …    I found myself yesterday in the engineering building, a third of a mile from my office, about to teach a class but without a copy of the novel we were reading. I still did fine, even referring to specific words and passages. Essentially I was teaching naked, though clothed in suit and tie. …You should be able to teach *viva voce*. If you need specific formats for information, such as tables of statistics, in your field, that’s fine. In poetry we depend on the written text too, and typographical details of the text can be extremely significant. But you shouldn’t have to look at notes to be able to teach something that you know well.

photo by Bob Basil

Aug 202015

readerStudents who suffer under the burden of high tuition and large student loans need all the financial help the world can provide them. For my upper-level communications classes the last couple of years I have been using an excellent online textbook. Here is a list of superb resources – free textbooks and journals – for students as well as teachers and researchers.

BC Campus: OpenEd

“It was on October 16, 2012 at the annual OpenEd conference in Vancouver that then British Columbia Minister of Advanced Education, John Yap, announced the BC Open Textbook Project. with project support provided by BCcampus. The goal of the project is to make higher education more accessible by reducing student cost through the use of openly licensed textbooks. Specifically, BCcampus was asked to create a collection of open textbooks aligned with the top 40 highest-enrolled subject areas in the province. A second phase was announced in the spring of 2014 to add 20 textbooks targeting trades and skills training. Our open textbooks are openly licensed using a Creative Commons license, and are offered in various e-book formats free of charge, or print on demand books available at cost.”

The texts cover a wide range, from Anatomy and Physiology to Research Methods and Formal Logic.

College Open Textbooks

The College Open Textbooks Collaborative, a collection of twenty-nine educational non-profit and for-profit organizations, affiliated with more than 200 colleges, is focused on driving awareness and adoptions of open textbooks to more than 2000 community and other two-year colleges. This includes providing training for instructors adopting open resources, peer reviews of open textbooks, and mentoring online professional networks that support for authors opening their resources, and other services.

The range of books is wide, addressing the arts and humanities, social sciences, and the hard sciences.

Creative Commons

Make your own work available to students and professors alike by availing yourself of Creative Commons.

“Creative Commons is a nonprofit organization that enables the sharing and use of creativity and knowledge through free legal tools. Our free, easy-to-use copyright licenses provide a simple, standardized way to give the public permission to share and use your creative work — on conditions of your choice. CC licenses let you easily change your copyright terms from the default of ‘all rights reserved’ to “some rights reserved. Creative Commons licenses are not an alternative to copyright. They work alongside copyright and enable you to modify your copyright terms to best suit your needs.”

International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning

This organization provides an excellent list of open-source journals focusing on learning, “distant education,” and research. It also publishes sometimes highly technical articles on the classroom environment in the digital age.

Open Knowledge Network

Open Knowledge is an educational advocacy group.

Open Knowledge is a worldwide non-profit network of people passionate about openness, using advocacy, technology and training to unlock information and enable people to work with it to create and share knowledge. … We want to see enlightened societies around the world, where everyone has access to key information and the ability to use it to understand and shape their lives; where powerful institutions are comprehensible and accountable; and where vital research information that can help us tackle challenges such as poverty and climate change is available to all.

Open Textbook Library
“Open textbooks are real, complete textbooks licensed so teachers and students can freely use, adapt, and distribute the material. Open textbooks can be downloaded for no cost, or printed inexpensively. This library is a tool to help instructors find affordable, quality textbook solutions. All textbooks in this library are complete and openly licensed.”

The range of subjects is wide, from Accounting to Communications to Law to the Social Sciences.


“OpenTextBookStore was created by educators frustrated with the time involved in finding adoptable open textbooks, with the hope to make open textbook adoption easier for other faculty.

Just to be clear, we are not a publisher. This is just a listing site for publicly available open textbooks, maintained by a teacher. Print copies are made available through third party print-on-demand companies. Many of the courses have course packages available through, which provides free online homework for several open math textbooks.”

The site specializes in math-related texts.

Saylor Academy

Saylor Academy’s mission is sustained by the continued evolution of an open educational ecosystem, and we are dedicated partners in this movement. Saylor’s commitment to the open education ecosystem is founded not just on open educational resources and open source learning technologies, but also on open access to credentials, and ongoing open learning opportunities.

Saylor has a long list of texts, available in multiple formats (PDF, DOCX, HTML).

Thanks to BH for the URLs.

photo by Bob Basil

May 082014
Tina Roh, Stanford University Computer Science Student

Tina Roh, Stanford University Computer Science Student

I had the honour of teaching students (as well as mentoring new instructors) in Stanford University’s Writing and Rhetoric program back in the day. Students from every corner of the university – from biology and engineering to sociology and English – take intensive workshops devoted to real-world research and report-writing in fields of their own interest. Tina Roh, pictured above, studied “The Rhetoric of Gaming” and composed her award-winning final paper on “software bugs in video games,” arguing that these bugs are “not necessarily harmful to games.” In preparing her paper she discovered “an entire community of gamers surrounding glitches” (I am not surprised!). She also received lots of feedback on her drafts from her friends, revising her work over and over to get it exactly right.

The video is part of Stanford’s “Writing Matters: Student Edition” series. Any teacher who wants to motivate students otherwise unsure about the utility of a writing course should play some of these videos in class. They make a solid, even inspiring case.

Jun 052013

My new favourite blog is by a Ukrainian-born scholar of Hispanic Literature named “Clarissa” – she doesn’t reveal her surname or some other would-be identifying information, like her university’s name – whose work I first encountered on Jonathan Mayhew’s Stupid Motivational Tricks (Scholarly Writing and How to Get it Done) blog, where she frequently posts tart, uncommon-sounding comments.

Her prose is a jumping, her tone is unsparing, and her focus is wide.

Here’s her recent take on the “adjunct professors“: “I think universities that hire people with PhDs to be adjuncts are stupid. Adjunct positions should be for those who have MAs. Anything else is exploitative and offensive to everybody. How do you even justify having at the same department people with the same qualifications but in wildly different positions? This is just ridiculous. And the environment this creates must be absolutely horrible. How could I, for instance, come to the department and see a colleague who works in really miserable conditions while being in no way different from me? I would feel so much shame that I would hardly be able to work. It’s like a caste system that is absolutely unreasonable and offensive to human dignity.”

Other lively posts of late: Pregnancy and Job Searches, Academic “Apocalypsis,” and Who’s to Blame for Bullied Children. Her blog’s comments sections are busy conversation parlours. I visit every day.

Two last things I should add:

– No other academic blog I know of so beautifully conveys the author’s love of academia, specifically the love of being a professor.

– Clarissa’s discussion of Asperger’s is very wise and practical. I’ve passed along her pellucid posts to numerous friends and colleagues.